I’m sad about the fact that my little Siddur, my small prayerbook, is beginning to fall apart. When I say small, I really mean it: it’s about four inches high, three inches wide and one inch thick, with eight hundred and ninety extremely thin pages. More than once I’ve had to tape the covers back on, but the book is precious to me and I shall continue to do my best to repair it.
It’s not my first miniature Siddur. I had one decades back, but left it behind one day after a service and never found again. I don’t know if it was passed down to me by my grandfather or my father, but I lost something of the spirit of my ancestors that day and still blame myself for being so careless.
When I went into a pious bookshop in Jerusalem and saw an equally tiny daily Siddur I bought it on impulse, never thinking I’d love it as much as its precursor. I was wrong. Especially since lockdown it has been my faithful companion. It’s not, of course, my God, that would be blasphemous. But it’s one of my pathways, if not to God, at least to my own spirit, which belongs to God. Its pages are my refuge and in the shelter of their words I find my restoration.
This is mental health Shabbat, and I need that Siddur for my mind’s health. One’s own consciousness can be a lonely, wretched, cruel and persecuting place. Years ago when I was teaching at an infant school, I had a cold and was dithering between going in and returning to bed. A guest of my mother, like her a psychotherapist, took one look at me and said, ‘You’re wondering if you can face a day with yourself at home.’ It was such an astute observation that I can still see her saying those words, forty years later.
Like most of us, I’m not mentally or spiritually sufficient unto myself. I need my prayer life, with my community, at home by the family photographs, or out among the trees at night, or with the dog, or in that atmosphere of collective compassion I experience among the care staff of hospices and hospitals. Perhaps prayer makes it sound too formal; it’s spiritual companionship, a silent, deep and generous companionship.
Something I especially love about my siddur are the pious instructions and mystical extras, many of which to this day I’ve not yet read. For example, I found in the small print preceding the morning service, ‘It is my intention for the sake of God from now until this time tomorrow to direct all my actions, words and thoughts, towards doing what is good for my own, my people’s and the whole world’s sake.’ This was closely followed by the declaration, ‘I take upon myself the positive commandment ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
After the main prayers, the Siddur reverts to the same miniscule font to record the personal supplications of Talmudic rabbis, such as Rabbi Elazar’s petition, ‘God, make our town a place of love, fellowship, peace and solidarity,’ or Rabbi Alexandri’s meditation, ‘May our hearts not become depressed or our eyes darkened.’
I realise as I write that it’s not just the prayerbook but this kind of Judaism which I love. Rooted in the depths of the soul, which is God’s place within us, it reaches out into community and the public square to bring God’s presence there too, an encompassing, just, caring and healing presence in which each person and all life is made welcome.